The Tampa Bay Buccaneers completed their fourth practice of training camp on Wednesday morning and the players will now enjoy their first day off before returning to work on Friday. Head Coach Bruce Arians turned that into two days of rest for a quartet of veterans who could probably benefit more from that than another round of practice reps.
That quartet of resting veterans on Wednesday was quarterback Tom Brady, tight end Rob Gronkowski, center Ryan Jensen and outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul. Brady's absence meant more reps to split between the other three quarterbacks, which was surely welcomed by rookie Kyle Trask in particular, and Pierre-Paul's time off meant more valuable work for rookie edge rusher Joe Tryon. But the players who likely benefitted the most from Arians calling for some 'veteran days' were rookie offensive lineman Robert Hainsey and the tight end trio of Tanner Hudson, Codey McElroy and Jerell Adams.
That was a side benefit, of course. The main point of resting the four veterans was to increase the chances that they would be in peak form when the reps that count begin on September 9.
"When you have guys 30, 32 – or 43 – you've got to manage it for them and help them," said Arians. "For us right now it's not how important it is right now, it's getting them to those games healthy and fresh. So yeah, the NBA coined the term 'load management;' I always just said, 'day off.' It is I think a very smart thing for those guys who hit that certain age and experience. It might be a repetition day of something that's already in. They don't really need it."
Sitting Gronkowski could have created an issue on some rosters given that the team's other two front-line tight ends, O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate, are also currently sidelined. Brate is on the active/PUP list with an unspecified injury while Howard is still working his way back from last year's Achilles tendon injury. Fortunately, the Buccaneers have a lot of promising depth behind those three in their tight end room, which was on display quite impressively on Wednesday.
That depth begins with Hudson and McElroy, two players in their mid-20s who have relatively little regular-season experience but plenty of time in the Bucs' system. Hudson has been with the team since signing as an undrafted free agent in 2018 and was on the active roster for most of last year. Known for his trustworthy hands, he has played in 20 games and has five career catches for 67 yards. McElroy first joined the Buccaneers midway through 2019 and has mostly been on the practice squad since but was able to get into one game and turn his only target into a 30-yard gain. A gifted athlete, he also played baseball and basketball at the college level.
Adams, meanwhile, is in his first Tampa Bay camp after signing in May. He previously played for the Giants and Texans and has 24 career receptions for 214 yards and a touchdown.
All three of those players were already getting a larger share of the work with Howard and Brate out, and all three had turned in impressive moments, but the spotlight was really on them on Wednesday. They did not disappoint.
"Tanner's has been around for a while; he's an excellent receiver," said Arians. "Codey McElroy had a hell of a day today and really flashed. Jerell is another guy who had a big touchdown, but he's a blocking tight end who can do both. Codey's getting better at [blocking]."
Arians predicted that Gronkowski would squeeze more value out of his day off by poring over the practice tape later, but he may not have to. The veteran tight end seemed to have the whole practice committed to memory, at least in terms of what the tight ends were doing.
"All those guys can play," said Gronkowski. "Codey … had a couple very nice catches over the middle on some crossing routes. Jerell with the stick-it up today, the out-and-up, that was a very beautiful play. And Tanner was out there making a couple nice plays on some option routes and scored a nice touchdown. It just shows, man, that we're deep there. It's good to be deep. It's good to have a lot of talent there. We all work off each other, we all push each other and we can all play ball. It's a special group for sure."
The Buccaneers started last season with four tight ends on their 53-man roster and stayed there after an early Antony Auclair injury by promoting Hudson from the practice squad. They went down to three after Howard's Week Four injury but eventually got Auclair back to make it four again. Throughout most of the season, they also had McElroy as a fifth tight end on the practice squad. If the Bucs follow a similar plan in Arians' third season at the helm, there will still be several spots available for those three tight ends even if Gronkowski, Howard and Brate are all healthy and on the roster.
"There's a lot of competition in that room right now and, again, special teams will decide," said Arians.
While those three tight ends were splitting reps, Hainsey was getting fully indoctrinated into the starting unit, taking over at center for Jense on the first-team line. Hainsey had never played center before joining the Buccaneers but is spending all of his time there as the team tries to develop him into a very versatile reserve…for now. There isn't an obvious backup for the center position on the roster right now beyond Hainsey, and he could factor into that position long-term as well.
"Other than the first snap of the practice I thought he had a really, really good practice," said Arians. "He was solid and did a really fine job a couple of times pulling and getting up on people. Identifications were good. It was a really solid day for him. He's getting better and better."
Arians highlighted plays on which the rookie lineman was "pulling" and blocking defenders on the move. Hainsey considers that a strong part of his repertoire.
"I'd say it's always been something I've been better at," said the Notre Dame product. "I've never been huge as a weight guy, so It's something I always knew I had to excel at. When my number was called, I gotta get out there. I'm definitely working on getting out of my stance, especially at center. It's a little bit different – my feet are parallel – so having to do those things is something I'm working on, especially when I have to pull for the perimeter."
Hainsey played right tackle exclusively at Notre Dame but did show what he could do at the interior positions during an impressive Senior Bowl week in January. The Bucs touted his multi-position possibilities when they drafted him at the end of the third round in the spring. Hainsey is embracing the Bucs' plan to get him ready to step in at any position on the line.
"I think one thing is that I'm a pretty good size for all three [positions] and I can kick out to tackle," he said. "I know I can play tackle if I need to. Moving inside is obviously something I've done, just starting this past year and I'm enjoying that. Just physically I know I can do all three especially playing center, I'm learning all the positions, I have to know everyone's job. So that's been something I've been trying to learn a lot over summer so now if I do have to play any guard or tackle, then I'll know exactly what I need to do."
The best way to learn, of course, is through reps, and Hainsey got some very valuable ones on Wednesday, as did the team's reserve tight ends. That could help all four of them in the long run.